The news media feeds people's prejudices with very simplistic and reactionary explanations of what's causing California's decline

The Barbarian Nurseries

Héctor Tobar is a novelist and a weekly columnist for the Los Angeles Times. The Barbarian Nurseries is a novel with a strong topic, well portrayed characters, a singular writing, and avoids a black and white vision of reality.

In a recent French weekly, there is an article which states that California is an example to follow in terms of immigration, illustrated by a photo showing a retired Californian man shaking hands with an immigrant. In your novel, the reality is altogether different. What is the actual situation?

California is in many ways tolerant of the newly arrived immigrant. And there is a great deal of openness here toward new cultures. However, a minority, a very vocal minority, sees the immigrant as a threat. And, at the same time, the newly arrived immigrant is likely to have the poorest paying jobs in California society. So yes, there is an ambivalence in California toward the immigrant: a dependence, and a blindness toward the growing gap between rich and poor.

You seem to know quite well the world of Californian computer specialists, and you’re rather critical of this profession. Or am I wrong?

Oh, no, I wouldn’t say I was critical. I think that computer software business people, however, tend to get swept away, more than other professions, in the idea of quick wealth. And that they possess some sort of knowledge, or magical quality, that allows them to create wealth easier than other people. But this is a general tendency in American society: the belief that technology will, somehow, solve all of society’s problems.

Why have you chosen to set the novel in Orange County?

Orange County is where I lived when I was a graduate student in English, and I came to know that suburban area well. Also, it has some of Southern California’s newest and more affluent neighborhoods—often gated communities with controlled access—and it seemed a place that would make a very stark contrast to older, poorer central Los Angeles and the Latino neighborhoods of Orange County.

Do news media and the American legal system reflect society or do they share some of the responsibility for our paranoid society and people isolating themselves?

I think they are a reflection of a society that ignores the growing social divide that’s plain to see in most American cities. The court system is neglected by a society that simply wants to lock away as many criminals for as long as possible, ignoring the social problems that feed crime and drug use, which is the chief source of crime in California and elsewhere. And the news media feeds people’s prejudices and very simplistic and reactionary explanations of what’s causing California’s decline.

Don’t Maureen and Araceli eventually want the same thing: live in peace with their family?

Yes and no. Araceli, like Maureen, wants to live in a city that allows her to be creative and prosper. But I don’t think of Araceli as a woman who wants a family, per se. She’s more of a bohemian, an artist who seeks creative expression.

Brandon reads The Catcher in the Rye. Could you have chosen to make him read another book?

Yes. But I chose Catcher in the Rye because it’s the defining book of the American adolescent—and because my own son read it at Brandon’s age!

Your novel is incredibly quick to read. Do you have a “recipe” to capture the reader’s attention and create this kind of fluency in the narrative?

Well, I try in my prose for what I’d call “accessible transcendence.” In other words, I try to make it easily readable, while trying to give it the artistic qualities that transform fiction into high art. All this requires much revision. I come from humble origins, too, and I think that gives me a respect for the so-called average reader: my father, for example, was largely self-educated, but reads quite widely. I don’t think confusing a reader is what makes writing special. And finally, I’ve written for years for newspapers, and I’m used to being read—to reaching a mass audience. When I write literary fiction, I’m obviously not reaching as big an audience as a newspaper: but I still think it’s the writer’s duty to use his craft to lift the reader with him to the artistic heights he wants to reach.